Drill is a subgenre of hip-hop marked by ominous samples, hi-hat rhythms, and dark 808s. It was birthed in the Southside of Chicago in 2012 by teenagers whose lives were consumed by gang warfare, police brutality and all manner of institutionalized violence. Drill was an outlet for acts like Chief Keef, Young Chop, and Lil Durk to channel these harsh realities into song as well as the ticket that allowed them to escape. A decade later, drill’s tentacles have reached across the globe, where young artists are experimenting and putting their own localized flare to the sound. The global explosion of the genre is especially notable in the last three years following the incredible success of Brooklyn drill pioneer Pop Smoke who was arguably the hottest rapper on the planet before he was assassinated in February 2020. In the months that followed, while much of the world was relegated indoors, glued to our screens as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the earth, localized drill scenes began coming out of the woodwork, one trending after the other; Ireland, Ghana, Australia, Sudan, and so on.
In Kenya, acts like Buruklyn Boyz, GTA, Big Yasa, and Dyana Cods have taken the genre, steeped it in local street culture and launched an unstoppable cultural movement. Delivered in sheng, an urban dialect that fuses Swahili, English, and other indigenous languages, Kenyan drill has risen from an underground subculture and is becoming among the preeminent sounds of the pop landscape today.
Hailing from an expansive housing project in the east of Nairobi called BuruBuru, the Buruklyn Boyz have risen as the genre’s de facto leaders and as an essential fabric of the youth zeitgeist as a whole. The quality and consistency of their music and video production stands out amongst their peers and their fans range from both uptown and downtown (as well as abroad); a feat that street oriented musicians have long struggled with. Their catchphrase kwanini kesho meaning “Why Tomorrow?” is so ubiquitous in pop-culture that many Kenyans don’t even know its origin but use it in their daily speech. Buruklyn Boyz, a rap collective from BuruBuru, in the east of Nairobi have risen as the movements’ defacto leaders with videos like Nairobi and Dream Ya Kutoka Kwa Block having garnered millions of views on Youtube and they continue to receive viral engagement at home and abroad whenever they drop new music.
The exportability of the genre proves more evident each day, with notable listenership, online discourse, and editorial support coming from abroad. As we come out of the pandemic and fans reconnect on the dancefloor, Boiler Room x Ballantine’s True Music aims to spotlight the seemingly unlikely rise of Kenyan drill’s youth movement as well as the history that lead to this moment. The traction that Kenya’s drill sound may initially come as a shock.. Afterall, when most of the world thinks of Kenya, masked teenagers waving gang-signs and bandanas is not what comes to mind. But if you consider the 254’s decades long rap tradition, it’s no surprise that it is a hip-hop subgenre that is now bearing the Kenyan flag abroad.
Hip-hop’s influence on Kenyan music is rich and far-reaching. It first gained popularity in Kenya in the 1990s thanks to concerted efforts by Kenya Broadcasting Company (KBC) and DJs at Nairobi discotheques to push American music content. The music recording process was also becoming increasingly digitized, thus making it easier for people to access recording tools and software. Hip-Hop was a massive import at this time due in large-part to the kinship that youth from Nairobi’s lower-income neighborhoods felt with Black American culture which so beautifully expressed the frustrations of marginalized people.
Genge rap developed as a response or interpolation of American hip-hop, championed by Eastlands artists like Jua Kali, Nonini, and Kalamashaka and later popularized by major radio stations. The beats were more danceable with lyrics delivered mostly in sheng. In the 2000s yet another hip-hop derivative emerged by the name of Kapuka or Boomba; a fusion of hip-hop, reggae/dancehall, and traditional East African sounds. Though the debate around a national sound remains contested in Kenya, Kapuka is perhaps the strongest contender. Popularized by the likes of Ogopa Deejayz, Necessary Noize, and the Kleptomaniacs, and also delivered in sheng, Kapuka dominated East African radios and dancefloors and solidly placed Kenya within the African pop music conversation. Fast forward to 2018 and yet another rap-centric genre Gengetone emerged; building on the Genge rap of the 90s to add reggaeton and dancehall. Also performed in sheng, Gengetone songs are typically high octane and filled with fast linguistically playful bars about youth, partying, politics, and sex. There is also Shrap; Kenya’s take on trap music which arose in the mid 2010s, also delivered in sheng, and also pioneered by youth from the East of Nairobi.
These musical movements are among the greatest and most impactful expressions of Kenyan musicality in history. And they all have hip-hop at their core. Commentaries on Kenyan society delivered through sheng. In their respective times, each of these sub-genres have faced backlash from a coservative mainstream culture that condemns lyrics referring to violence or sex and older gatekeepers who can’t consider the musicality of hard beats and clever bars, but have maneged to etch their place in history nonetheless.
It is easy to see how drill, which emerged from Eastern neighborhoods like BuruBuru and Eastlands, is a branch from this same tree. (and has faced much of the same criticisms.)
Kenya’s music industry that oft over-obsesses over the notion of “finding a national sound” for export akin to Afrobeats or Bongo Flava, to the point that it underplays the thread that connects the many different sounds that it has birthed over the years. What sets Nairobi’s young drillers apart is that they see this thread and are simply following it, building on a foundation laid for them decades ago, and elevating it to new heights. With each generation for the last 30 years, Kenyan youth have found new ways to immortalize themselves within hip-hop’s grand lexicon; the most influential music culture in history. And by the look of things, this generation won’t be left out.